A financial battle years in the making is finally getting a serious push in the Minnesota House and Senate thanks to bills sponsored by District 39A Rep. Bob Dettmer and District 39 Sen. Karin Housley, who are pushing a transportation bill that would see Forest Lake Area Schools and school districts like it no longer having to supplement transportation costs with money from the general fund.
Minnesota provides funding for schools to transport students on a per-pupil basis. This method doesn’t cover costs in some geographically larger districts, as it fails to account for the number of miles a bus must travel and instead only takes student numbers into consideration. Dettmer, who taught in Forest Lake for 34 years and also coached wrestling, said he’s worked years for a fix. He is sponsoring bill HF1612, a companion to Housley’s Senate bill SF1026, both of which focus on the top 12 underfunded districts in the state. Forest Lake is No. 2 on that list, just below Osseo.
“This formula was created sometime in the ’70s, and obviously it is way too far outdated now to be very useful when current conditions are taken into consideration,” Dettmer said. “The sparsity of Forest Lake and other rural districts around it are not taken into consideration, and we are hoping to change that with this next budget.”
The Forest Lake Area School District is approximately 200 square miles and buses travel more than 2 million miles per year. Districts with similar enrollments but a significantly less amount of square mileage receive the same amount of per pupil funding from the state of Minnesota even though their real transportation costs are much less.
In 1995, the Minnesota Legislature took what was each individual districts transportation fund and capital fund and rolled them both into the general fund.
“Where we have to use money out of our general fund to make up the shortfall, other districts receive more than they need and are able to use that general fund surplus for other things,” FLAS Business Manager Larry Martini said. “Were the formula fair, we would not have to make up for lack of state funds.”
Forest Lake pulls approximately $1 million annually from its general fund to pay for transportation costs. Should the transportation bill pass with the current language intact, Forest Lake would receive an additional $1.2 million. To put those numbers into perspective, on Dec. 1, 2016, Forest Lake School Board members voted to direct the administration to make budget reductions in the amount of $2.5 million for the 2017-18 school year to correspond with projected budget revenues.
“If this eventually goes the way we would like it to and the state funding comes much closer to matching our actual cost, I could easily see us not having to make nearly as many staff cuts,” Martini said. “Retaining or even adding staff would help to reduce our class sizes, and that’s a win for everyone.”
Although the $1.2 million would be ideal, Dettmer said, the bill’s final form may not work out exactly that way.
“The next step is for the education finance committee, chaired by Rep. Jennifer Loon, to discuss all of the education funding requests and decide how much money to allot for each in the omnibus bill,” Dettmer said. “The transportation funding bill may not get fully funded, but any extra money at all coming in for Forest Lake will be a very good thing. If we only get $700,000 of the $1.2 million we are hoping for, then we come back in the next budget cycle and see what more we can do.”
Although whether the bill will be partially or fully funded is still in the air, Dettmer has confidence that it will not completely fail.
“When you have multiple legislators fighting for the same cause, there is a much better chance at passage,” he said. “Forest Lake is far from the only district that is underfunded, and so there are a number of representatives fighting to see this bill funded.”
Dettmer also commended Forest Lake representatives for their diligence in pushing for fair funding.
“We have seen (Superintendent) Linda Madsen and Larry Martini down at the Capitol on several different occasions, and it has certainly helped the cause,” Dettmer said. “They are definitely doing their jobs well in that they are fighting for their district not only at home but also at a legislative level.”
The ultimate outcome will likely be decided sometime in May. If the House and Sentate language is not the same, the bill will be sent to a conference committee so the language can be sorted out properly. Once the Senate and the House have decided and agreed upon the proper terms and language, the K-12 omnibus bill will be sent to Gov. Mark Dayton for his signature.